On the Anniversary of Ann Boleyn’s Imprisonment

Today on NPR, they read Anne Boleyn’s last letter to Henry VIII, on the anniversary of her arrest. I think if I had been Henry’s successor, and were I a Western Christian, I would have first restored the Church to Rome, and then ordered Henry’s body exhumed, beheaded, burned, and the ashes cast into the sea. And lastly, I would have asked the rightful Patriarch in the Church of Rome to pronounce the anathema on Henry as a heretic (which of course was done already, but still). What a horrendous ruler he was, and a horrendous individual. So much in recent history depends on the arrogance of that prince. He was a hydra with seven heads, once for each of his six wives, and the beastly central visage his self-proclaimed religious primacy as “head of the Church”, for which he executed those who would not agree. Henry, wherever you are, you summed up the fickle use of whatever the proud and powerful cast their eyes upon. You were a new Nero.

I don’t expect people with scant knowledge of religion and history, or who can’t distinguish fact from opinion, or one opinion from another for that matter, or who don’t have a spouse they are sworn to defend to understand this attitude. One can only expect it to be misunderstood and mischaracterized. It is thought that the various antichrists appearing throughout history belong merely to the realm of religion and not to abomination against all that is genuine and honorable. But as Christ addressed himself to all of life, to the whole of human experience, so do those who have taken power where Christ brought peace, and have used that power to use the rest of us, despitefully as Anne wrote in her letter. The dissolving of the monasteries, and the slander against the monks that preceded it, just as Henry slandered Anne in order to demolish her, summed up a fundamental attack on the culture, cleaving it from any remaining ascetic character, along with the ‘virtues’ that entails. Henry is said to have died in his disease shouting “Monks! Monks! Monks!” but who knows.

I am not claiming to be more honorable or less guilty than Henry, and don’t have much use for people who would. I do, however, mark this as one of the great points of failing in Western history, where the West’s knees buckled and it finally fell. Not the only point, certainly not the worst one, but certainly a significant one. It was a catastrophe of vast seismic proportion. I’m currently reading The Handmaid’s Tale, which is about a similar situation to Anne’s. She was rejected for failing to bear Henry an heir. It’s instructive to ponder her final written words, which were to her husband, May 6:

“Sir,Your Grace’s displeasure, and my imprisonment are things so strange unto me, as what to write, or what to excuse, I am altogether ignorant. Whereas you send unto me (willing me to confess a truth, and so obtain your favour) by such an one, whom you know to be my ancient professed enemy. I no sooner received this message by him, than I rightly conceived your meaning; and if, as you say, confessing a truth indeed may procure my safety, I shall with all willingness and duty perform your demand.

But let not your Grace ever imagine, that your poor wife will ever be brought to acknowledge a fault, where not so much as a thought thereof preceded. And to speak a truth, never prince had wife more loyal in all duty, and in all true affection, than you have ever found in Anne Boleyn: with which name and place I could willingly have contented myself, if God and your Grace’s pleasure had been so pleased. Neither did I at any time so far forget myself in my exaltation or received Queenship, but that I always looked for such an alteration as I now find; for the ground of my preferment being on no surer foundation than your Grace’s fancy, the least alteration I knew was fit and sufficient to draw that fancy to some other object. You have chosen me, from a low estate, to be your Queen and companion, far beyond my desert or desire. If then you found me worthy of such honour, good your Grace let not any light fancy, or bad council of mine enemies, withdraw your princely favour from me; neither let that stain, that unworthy stain, of a disloyal heart toward your good grace, ever cast so foul a blot on your most dutiful wife, and the infant-princess your daughter. Try me, good king, but let me have a lawful trial, and let not my sworn enemies sit as my accusers and judges; yea let me receive an open trial, for my truth shall fear no open flame; then shall you see either my innocence cleared, your suspicion and conscience satisfied, the ignominy and slander of the world stopped, or my guilt openly declared. So that whatsoever God or you may determine of me, your grace may be freed of an open censure, and mine offense being so lawfully proved, your grace is at liberty, both before God and man, not only to execute worthy punishment on me as an unlawful wife, but to follow your affection, already settled on that party, for whose sake I am now as I am, whose name I could some good while since have pointed unto, your Grace being not ignorant of my suspicion therein. But if you have already determined of me, and that not only my death, but an infamous slander must bring you the enjoying of your desired happiness; then I desire of God, that he will pardon your great sin therein, and likewise mine enemies, the instruments thereof, and that he will not call you to a strict account of your unprincely and cruel usage of me, at his general judgment-seat, where both you and myself must shortly appear, and in whose judgment I doubt not (whatsoever the world may think of me) mine innocence shall be openly known, and sufficiently cleared. My last and only request shall be, that myself may only bear the burden of your Grace’s displeasure, and that it may not touch the innocent souls of those poor gentlemen, who (as I understand) are likewise in strait imprisonment for my sake. If ever I found favour in your sight, if ever the name of Anne Boleyn hath been pleasing in your ears, then let me obtain this request, and I will so leave to trouble your Grace any further, with mine earnest prayers to the Trinity to have your Grace in his good keeping, and to direct you in all your actions. From my doleful prison in the Tower, this sixth of May;

Your most loyal and ever faithful wife,

Anne Boleyn”

This is not the Anne of a TV miniseries, or the speculations of historical gossips who fancy themselves historically literate. This is a human Anne, not a white trash fantasy characterization. The woman was not only despitely used by her husband, and those who abandoned her to his tyranny and sacrificed her to their own greed and religious arrogance, she is now so often used by us to titillate. One has only to catch a few episodes of The Tudors where she appears, or listen to some armchair survey of historical scandals by men who read detective magazines in their spare time to know this is so. Some have even blamed her for “making” Henry a heretic, equivalent to blaming a woman for adultery when she’s been raped (which goes on in various places, as we all well know). We wronged you, Anne. You will stand up in the Judgment you referred to and say that we wronged you, we who have been pleased to make that wrong into a culture and a set of ‘values’ and assumptions and premises that typify the wrong. You will point your finger at my culture, at my country, not only your own, and we will not be able to answer it. As you have prayed mercy on Henry, spare us also by your prayers for the same.